A Border

On Crossing Borders

If I’m honest, most of my travel is predictable.

Even my most unpredictable journeys have edges and outcomes that are known. Traffic jams? They’ll dissipate. Cancelled flights? It’s just process. Stolen luggage? Not yet. Snow storm on a mountain pass? Wait it out.

While a truly great journey will leave you feeling three years younger, and two years wiser, a difficult border crossing will reveal your true character.

Every prior experience levels the expectations of the next step of the journey. There is however a particular kind of journey event that has remained as unpredictable as my first experience—the border crossing.

While a truly great journey will leave you feeling three years younger and wiser, a difficult border crossing will reveal your true character.

But first a step back.

A Highway

In my twenties I used to set aside six-straight-weeks each year to explore the world, alongside shorter trips. Ten years of corporate life upped the amount of travel close to half of each year, but that too was about smoothing out bumps, making things more, rather than less predictable. For the first few years after having a child, longer stints away were put on hold.

This year, with Studio D humming along nicely I set aside more time for exploration. Over the summer I took to the road to remind myself of what travel can be. Arguably, what I think travel should be.

The saying “travel broadens the mind” is only partly true.

Many people find travel stressful. It is at times for me too. While we all handle stress differently, the commonality is that it amplifies our emotional responses to things. Difficult travel is a reflection of our true selves, whether you’re curious, in survival mode, a bigot or open minded.

A Lake

I have a professional interest in the psychology of travel. I often take project teams, that need to be high performers from the moment they hit the ground, into a range of environments from dense urban slums to edge-of-grid, back alleys to board rooms. (For those that are interested, there’s a section on the art and science of field work travel in the upcoming Field Study Handbook.)

Over the years I’ve hired hundreds of people for international projects, putting teams on the ground from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and have witnessed best and worst impact that travel can have on myself, the team, clients and our local crew. While there are many forms of travel stress, the stakes are raised for border-crossings. They are the one place, where the final decision of what happens next is completely out of the traveller’s control.

In a life measured by predictability, a border crossing is an acute disempowerment.

Here’s how I grade official* border crossings as potential learning experiences.

An average border crossing has long waits and involves paperwork. You might as well stay in your hometown and visit the post office during your lunch break.

If you’re lucky on an average crossing, you might be shaken down. There are any number of importation infringements that require a permit or bribe to get out of. A heavily thumbed rule book will ratchet up the tension. If team equipment is impounded, it just takes a lawyer, a bit of paperwork and a couple of days to get it out again.

A good border crossing is unpredictable. Unknowns include transport options in and out, language difficulties, ethnic tensions, whether or not you will be allowed to cross, and more importantly if you do get in, whether they will let you out again and at what cost. On my summer’s journey, one that included the Wakhan Corridor, the Afghanistan border had been closed for three weeks on account of the risk of Taliban attacks to coincide with Tajikistan’s National Day. No word when the border will reopen.

A few years back, on completion of a client project in Cairo, I hopped into a taxi with my colleague Justin and ~600km later, was at the Libyan border in a town called El Salloum. The civil war in Libya had been going a while. There were immigration checks on the Egyptian side of the border, and nothing but curious locals and lots of anti-Gaddafi graffiti, on the other side. As you might expect from a part of the country that wasn’t under formal state control, there was a fair amount of chaos. It wasn’t totally clear whether we could return, and a bit of relief when it all went smoothly. I count that as a good border crossing.

A truly great border crossing will saw through the muscle and hit the bone. For starters it is remote enough, that if things go bad no-one will be there to witness events. There are back rooms, side rooms, back doors, benches with shackles and woodsheds, all of which you can be pulled to. They are marked by the accoutrements of officialdom, photos of presidents, holy men, warlords, saints, mothers, lovers, footballers and Britney. Always a Britney. You’ll find uniforms, dogs, insignia, knives, guns, bigger guns, weird old guns, and sly smiles. The ledgers, which invariably takes an age to fill out, represent months of time spent waiting. And occasionally there’ll be a skinned argali.

The body language of the guards is one of power.

How would you behave if you too could warp time?

In particularly remote crossings, you are their antidote to boredom, the longer you are detained, the faster their day goes. They are hungry, and you’re lunch and perhaps, if they get their way, also the pantry for the winter. Your true self is revealed in the reaction to your worst fears: confiscation, deportation, to lose a day or lose a fortnight in rerouted travel, the consequences of having items planted in your luggage, the impact on you and your travel companions.

A high altitude border introduces unpredictable weather conditions. There’s nothing quite like altitude sickness to encourage poor decision making and a blizzard at 4,500 meters as the light fades to force those decisions. When immigration and customs officials are underpaid, they know a thousand ways to exhort a bribe and make you believe that their’s is the only word that counts. To frame this in a positive light, they can be great storytellers.

Lastly, when a border crossing is geopolitically tetchy, where the neighbouring countries have agendas, that are themselves part of a greater game, the assumption is that you too are a player.

Which brings us to today’s border crossing.

Afghanistan/Tajikistan Border

“You have Kalashnikov? Rubies? Opium?”

And so it goes.


I’m a writer, photographer and the Founder of Studio D. I travelled 7,000 km with a single piece of hand-luggage, which inspired the D3 Raw. Photos from this trip here. Want more? Subscribe to the Borderlands mailing list.

*There are of course unofficial ways to cross borders to0, borders are permeable after all.

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